The sacrificial service in the Temple – referred to simply as avodah, or “service” by the Sages – is one of the foundations of the Torah, and is considered one of the pillars upon which the world stands (see the Mishnah in Masechet Avot 1:2). Even after the destruction of the Temple, when the laws of the sacrificial service became relevant only for Messianic times, the Sages continued to discuss these topics to the extent that we have an entire Order of Talmud – SederKodashim. Although we only have Gemara on Seder Kodashim in the Babylonian Talmud, there is evidence from the works of the rishonim that there was Talmud Yerushalmi on it, as well, that was not preserved and appears to have been lost entirely.
Masechet Zevahim offers a broad explication of the laws of sacrifices that are brought from live animals – that is, fowls and animals – while meal offerings have a tractate, Masechet Menahot, devoted to those laws. The main topics discussed are the sacrifices themselves – how they are prepared, where they are brought, what would disqualify them – but not what animals are brought for each sacrifice. That topic is dealt with in other tractates, and not only in Seder Kodashim. For example, Yoma and Pesahim introduce the sacrifices of Yom Kippur and Pesach; Nazir introduces the sacrifices brought by a Nazirite, etc. Our tractate also does not discuss the order of the sacrificial service in the Temple, neither on a daily basis (those laws appear in Masechet Tamid) nor on holidays (those appear in tractates devoted to individual holidays).
Nevertheless, given that Masechet Zevahim is the first tractate in the Order of Kodashim, and that the laws of the sacrifices that are dealt with are among the most basic activities in the Temple, the tractate includes a number of general issues that will serve as a foundation for the other tractates in Kodashim, each of which will be taken up and discussed as appropriate.
Although the laws of the sacrifices are dealt with at length in the Torah – mainly in Sefer Vayikra, but in Shemot, Bamidbarand Devarim, as well – as is the case throughout the Torah, the laws are not presented as general principles in a set, orderly manner, rather they appear as descriptions and as individual laws. Even in places where the Torah offers a lengthy description of the requirements of the sacrifice, there is not enough information for us to understand what must actually be done without the traditions of the Oral Torah and the explanations of the Sages on these matters. Furthermore, the Torah only instructs what must be done, without devoting attention to questions of how to deal with situations where the activities were not done according to the requirements, Therefore, Masechet Zevahim takes on the task of offering general, organized principles that govern the sacrificial service, and explain what to do when mistakes are made.
Sacrifices – meaning sacrifices from living creatures – can be organized in a number of ways.
One straightforward distinction is between sacrifices from animals and from fowl, both of which are dealt with in this tractate. Similarly, we can divide animal sacrifices based on the type of animal – larger cattle, such as cows and bulls or smaller livestock, such as goats and sheep – based on the age of the animal, or based on the sex of the animal. Some sacrifices can be brought from any of these animals, while some are limited to specific animals or types of animals.
Another type of distinction is based on the level of holiness of the sacrifice. Is it kodashei kodashim – the holiest of sacrifices – or kodashim kalim – sacrifices on a lower level of holiness?
Sacrifices are also divided up based on time and place. Some sacrifices can be slaughtered only in the northern part of the Temple courtyard, while others can be killed anywhere in the courtyard. The blood of some sacrifices is sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, in others it is sprinkled on the Golden altar outside of the Temple. Even on the altar, it may be placed on the upper part of the altar or the lower part; it may be put on each of the four “horns” of the altar or on two of the corners. At the same time, some sacrifices can be brought at any time, others according to the individual need of the person bringing the sacrifice, while others must be brought only at specifics times.
Some sacrifices are not eaten at all, others are consumed by the kohanim, while some have parts that are given to the owner of the korban (=sacrifice) to eat. Of those that are eaten, some must be consumed on the day that they were brought while others can be eaten on the following day, as well.
There are four basic avodot – activities – that must be performed for each animal sacrifice –
- Shehitah – slaughtering the animal (this need not be done by a kohen)
- Kabalat ha-dam – collecting the blood at the time of slaughter
- Holakah – carrying the sacrifice to the altar
- Zerikat ha-dam – sprinkling the blood on the altar.
Sacrifices brought from fowl involve just two such avodot –
- Melikah – killing the bird
- Netinat ha-dam – placing the blood on the altar.
Most of the sacrifices involve burning parts of the animal on the altar.
The issues of time, place and the order of the service are of utmost importance when bringing sacrifices. In some cases, any change from the required practice will invalidate the sacrifice, although in some cases certain changes will be acceptable ex-post facto.
A unique set of laws that apply to the sacrificial service involve the fact that sacrifices may become disqualified not only by inappropriate actions, but even by means of inappropriate thoughts.
Two cases of inappropriate thoughts apply to all sacrifices:
- Someone who thinks that he will bring the sacrifice or eat it after the appropriate time creates a situation of pigul, for which he will be liable to receive the punishment of karet if he eats it,
- Someone who thinks that he will bring the sacrifice or eat it outside of the place where he is required to eat it, will disqualify the sacrifice.
There are other cases of inappropriate thoughts, such as a case where the person intends to bring the animal for the wrong sacrifice or the wrong person. For most sacrifices, if such a mistake were made the person would not fulfill his obligation.
Finally, since Masechet Zevahim deals generally with the sacrificial service it also touches on such topics as the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple, which serves are a contrapositive to the main topic of this tractate – the commandment to bring sacrifices in the Temple.